Devil’s Advocate, The (1997): Taylor Hackford’s Stylish Melodrama Starring Keanu Reeves

Stylishly elegant but thematically flawed, Taylor Hackford’s “Devil’s Advocate” is yet another modern version of the noted Faustian morality tale.

The movie is slick, lavish and entertaining, especially in the first hour or so, before its plot gets improbable and over the top.

The screenplay is by Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, from Andrew Neiderman’s novel (which I have not read).

Keanu Reeves plays Kevin Lomax, an ambitious yuppie lawyer who sells himself out to a big, sleazy firm in Manhattan.

This time around the devil, named John Milton (reference to Paradise Lost?) is played by Al Pacino in a seductive manner.  Early on, the charming megalomaniac Milton says: “Look at me, underestimated from day one! You’d never think I was a Master of the Universe, now wouldya?”

The devil and his disciple first meet in Gainesville, Florida, where Kevin immediately impresses as a smart, handsome hotshot. Kevin has just successfully defended a schoolteacher against a charge of molesting a student (Heather Matarazzo of “Welcome to the Dollhouse”).

You would expect a guy like Kevin to be a swinging single, but it turns out he’s married to a gorgeous wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron), who has her own agenda in pushing her hubby to higher grounds.

The big firm, which is globally oriented, has no problem luring Kevin into its folds with its materialistic benefits, though it’s also clear that the temptations go beyond money per se to include super-size ego, fame and power.

The couple soon settles into a lush penthouse with an impressive view–and more impressive, if also lurid art collection. At first, Mary Ann stays home, taking care of the huge space. But soon she gets bored and joins the company of her fellow corporate wives in shopping, dining, and gossiping. Turning point occurs, when Mary Ann begins seeing strange visions, shape-shifting demons.

From that point on, “Devil’s Advocate” begins to lose it grounding in recognizable reality and turns too preachy and fake for its own good in its moral and lessons about good and evil. This becomes perhaps too explicit, when Pacino’s mischievous and malevolent Milton states, “Vanity is definitely my favorite sin.”

There are echoes in this movie of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”—greed is good–which was made a decade earlier, and other tales about immoral and amoral characters (usually men), and a number of scenes seem to borrow heavily from Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.”

The central performances are fine, and the imagery is suitably sleek and seductive, but the movie is way too long with its zigzag plotting.

Cast:

Keanu Reeves (Kevin Lomax)

Al Pacino (John Milton)

Charlize Theron (Mary Ann Lomax)

Judith Ivey (Mrs. Lomax)

Connie Nielson (Christabella).

Heather Matarazzo (student)

Craig T. Nelson (Alexander Cullen).

Credits:

Produced by Arnon Milchan, Arnold Kopelson and Anne Kopelson.

Directed by Taylor Hackford.

Screenplay: Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy, based on a novel by Andrew Neiderman.

Camera: Andrzej Bartkowiak.

Editing: Mark Warner.

Music: James Newton Howard.

Production designer: Bruno Rubeo.

Makeup effects: Rick Baker.

Running time: 144 Minutes.

MPAA Rating: R.